Joseph Boyden checked in late for his Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Toronto four years ago. When he boarded the airplane, he found himself sandwiched between two other passengers, stuck in the dreaded middle seat. With just under five hours of claustrophobic travel ahead, the Giller Prize-winning Canadian author, then in his early forties, realized he had a choice to make.
“I can sit here and fume and watch a movie, or I can open my mind to something that I want to create,” Boyden recalled thinking to himself in an interview with Peter Mansbridge.
In the next few hours, lack of elbowroom notwithstanding, Boyden wrote the opening scene of his latest novel, The Orenda.
Humble beginnings for a book that has been named a finalist for the Governor General’s award, made the long-list for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and, most recently, won CBC Canada Reads 2014 as the one book with the power to change Canada. In that competition, The Orenda was passionately championed to victory by Wab Kinew, a hip-hop artist, journalist, and Aboriginal rights activist from Ontario. Opponents included Cockroach by Rawi Hage (defended by Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee) and Giller Prize-winning Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (defended by Olympic gold medalist Donovan Bailey).
Set in the Georgian Bay region of southern Ontario, in the mid-1600s, The Orenda depicts the conflict between the Wendat (Huron) and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) peoples, and the efforts of Jesuit missionaries, recently arrived from France, to introduce the ‘savages’ to their Christian God.
Boyden writes through the eyes of three central characters (a Wendat chief, a Haudenosaunee girl, and a French Jesuit priest), alternating among their viewpoints as he weaves his tale.
At times, the process of creating unique voices for these three characters causes his writing to feel forced; developing convincing emotional depth is hard enough for a single character. However, it’s worth it, as the intertwining narratives consider events from multiple angles, and overall the approach lends a captivating dimensionality to his storytelling.
The narrative device is also a way for Boyden to balance the historical perspectives in his story. Despite being a work of fiction, Boyden intended the book as an accurate representation of the period in which it takes place. In an interview with Shelagh Rogers, host of CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter, Boyden said that the book is “a navigation of where I feel we are now, but looking back four-hundred-plus years”, a piece of the puzzle in the birthing of a nation that is “incredibly complex and rich in its history.”
The historical context of the events in The Orenda forms the foundation for centuries of conflict surrounding the status of Aboriginal peoples in Canada, conflict that is ongoing today. Indeed, in his spoken-word opening statement for The Orenda on Canada Reads, Wab Kinew rhymed that “reconciliation with the indigenous nations is the biggest social justice issue awaiting confrontation.” Later in the show, Kinew explained why The Orenda is relevant to present-day issues.
“What this book does is it introduces us to the original worldviews, the original clash of cultures, and it fundamentally boils down to the question: ‘Do we own the land, or does the land own us?’ and that is still the same conflict that is rising up all over [Canada] today.”
Kinew cast The Orenda as a tool for reconciliation because of the way the book explores the interactions between early settlers and indigenous nations. Critics of The Orenda, however, say that Boyden’s depiction of native culture is not necessarily accurate, and that in fact the book may only serve to reinforce existing stereotypes.
In particular, these critics- First Nations scholars among them- point to the profusion of violence between natives (graphic torture and battle scenes abound in The Orenda) as not only inaccurate, but also as serving as a “moral alibi” for the inevitability of colonialism and thus a “comforting tale for Canadians,” in the words of Ryerson University professor Hayden King.
Cultural relevance aside, The Orenda is a gripping read. Boyden succeeds in evoking a world that is all at once strangely alien and deeply human; his poetic prose interleaves scenes of brutal torture with depictions of loving relationships in a way that is visceral and profoundly moving.
The orenda is the soul, or spiritual force, that the Iroquois and Huron believe all things, animate and inanimate, possess. Joseph Boyden’s book of the same name deserves a spot alongside his wonderful novels Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce, that much is certain. Whether or not he has truly succeeded in, as Shelagh Rogers put it, “[giving] this history an orenda”, however, remains to be seen.